In the modern sense of the word, a lottery is a game in which people pay money for the chance to win prizes by selecting numbers that are drawn at random. The first recorded use of lotteries dates to the Han dynasty (205–187 BC). Today, there are many different kinds of official lotteries. These include state-run and commercial lottery games, and privately run and charitable games like bingo. State-run lotteries are popular in most countries, and they are a major source of government revenue. In the United States, state-run lotteries are regulated by state laws.

When the modern lottery began to grow in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, it was a tempting solution for states grappling with budget crises that could not be solved by raising taxes. As Cohen puts it, in these times of “tax revolt,” lotteries offered politicians a way to raise money without provoking voters’ anger.

But critics questioned both the ethics of funding public services through gambling and the amount of money that states really stood to gain. They came from all political parties and walks of life, including devout Protestants who argued that state-sponsored lotteries were an affront to morality.

In time, legalization advocates, no longer able to sell the lottery as a silver bullet that would float a whole state’s budget, refocused their arguments. They shifted from arguing that a lottery would subsidize all state programs to claiming that it would cover one line item—invariably some nonpartisan service that was popular with voters, such as education, elder care, or support for veterans.